“Shocking” and “painfully sad” experiences of five Victorian children in care shows major reform needed: Ombudsman

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Ombudsman Deborah Glass is calling upon the Victorian Government to undertake major reform of the Child Protection residential care system, after investigating complaints about alleged assaults of five children in care.

The five children were allegedly victims of multiple physical and sexual assaults while in residential care, either by other children in care or people in the community. They were aged 11–15 at the time of the incidents.

Some of the assaults have been proven in court or are currently before the courts. In other cases, there was insufficient evidence for Police to take matters further or the assaults were not reported or recorded.

Ms Glass said the children had needed the State to give them a safe home only for them “to end up more damaged, with even greater odds to overcome to lead meaningful and productive lives”.

Tabling her Investigation into complaints about assaults of five children living in Child Protection residential care units in the Victorian Parliament today, Ms Glass said the children’s experiences included:

  • A teenage girl at risk of sexual exploitation who was allegedly raped by three men when she absconded from her residential care unit.
  • A transgender girl who says her experience in residential care destroyed her life. She said she was continually sexually assaulted by another resident. Her sexual identity was deemed a risk to others and her female items were taken away from her.
  • An Aboriginal girl who said some weeks after arriving at a residential unit, a local drug dealer was giving her ice. She told workers she had been raped by an adult man out in the community, and had also been assaulted by other children in the units. Her cultural plan, intended to support and connect her to her community, took over a year to be developed.
  • Some of the children were given psychotropic drugs to manage their behaviour. In the disability sector this is known as chemical restraint and required to be carefully controlled. No such controls exist in residential care.

“The experiences of the five children are not new or isolated,” Ms Glass said. “In the last decade, numerous independent bodies, including the Commission for Children and Young People, have warned of significant and systemic problems with the residential care system.

“Yet despite the numerous critical reports, solid legislative framework and indeed, the good intentions of the many hardworking and dedicated professionals who work in the system, it continues to fail.

“Those working in the system told us of the pressures to take children, of placements based on the ‘least-worst’ option rather than the best interests of the child, even where the match was risky or unsafe.

“They told us that placement decisions were dictated by the availability of beds. That the system was not designed or resourced to deal with complex needs and behaviours of concern.”

Ms Glass has made five recommendations including that the Government:

  • commence conversion of standard four-bed residential care units to therapeutic two-bed units with enhanced access for children to services, particularly mental health and education
  • consider establishing an independent advocate for children in care within the Commission for Children and Young People.

The Minister for Child Protection has accepted the recommendations which apply to the Government “in principle subject to examining the policy and budget requirements to develop and implement these recommendations”.

Ms Glass welcomed the Government’s acceptance in principle of her recommendations, and said she would report further on their implementation in practice.

“These are major reforms that will cost money, but as these cases show, doing nothing may well come at a greater cost,” she said.

“Nearly a thousand Victorian children lived in residential care at some time in the last year. My profound hope is that this is not simply the latest in a long list of critical reports, from which little seems to change.”

If this report raises issues for you, and you wish to contact the Department of Health and Human Services, you can email clientsafepractice@dhhs.vic.gov.au .

If you have a complaint about a current Child Protection matter, contact the Ombudsman on (03) 9613 6222 (10am-4pm, Mon-Fri) or via our online complaint form at www.ombudsman.vic.gov.au/complaints .

Media contact: 0409 936 235